New Zealand is generally well regarded in the international community. That is probably one of the biggest things going for former Prime Minister Helen Clark (aside for the moment from her considerable and formidable personal skills and talents) in her bid to become the next United Nations’ Secretary-General. She comes from a country which is one of the oldest continuous Parliament democracies in the world, with a commitment to international co-operation (the role wartime Prime Minister Peter Fraser played in the formation of the United Nations is still widely recognised) and a reputation for speaking out (the Kirk Government’s stand against French nuclear testing in the Pacific and David Lange’s anti-nuclearism are legend). Even today, Prime Minister John Key is developing a reputation as a leader who speaks up in international meetings for the interests of small nations and the protection of human rights generally. If Helen Clark’s bid is successful, as all New Zealanders hope, our country will be justifiably proud to see our national values recognised on the world stage.
All of which makes the one great blind spot in our foreign policy that much harder to tolerate and understand. New Zealand’s 1972 decision to recognise the People’s Republic of China was hailed at the time as in the vein of the independence our foreign policy has become noted for. We were again forging a new path others may wish to have followed, but sadly, as the years have gone by, that independent streak has first weakened, then frayed, and now virtually disappeared altogether. As we have become closer to China economically and politically, our policy approach has simply become more timid and craven. When the Lange Government’s anti-nuclear policy was at its peak, international commentators used to describe New Zealand as the mouse that roared. Now, they could just as accurately describe us as the mouse that scuttled for cover.
Our foreign policy now has a desperate air to it. It is no longer about trying to secure our trading future, or playing our part in the Commonwealth and wider international community. No, New Zealand’s foreign policy today is all about not upsetting China. Even though we have a free trade agreement with China, and generally good political relations, we dare not use those links to speak out about issues of concern. Despite our laudable opposition to the use of the death penalty worldwide, we suddenly become mute when it comes to China, one of the most judicially murderous nations on earth. We pointedly state no view on China’s increasing incursions into the Pacific and its building of artificial islands in the South China Sea to extend its national frontiers. Only once international adjudication has ruled against China do we meekly state that maybe China should respect international law. Even this week, there have been reports that we are unwilling to do too much about reportedly inferior Chinese steel fabrications being used in local projects because China has apparently threatened retaliation against Fonterra and other exporters if we complain.
Now, of course China is a much bigger and more powerful nation than New Zealand, and of course, the relationship with China is far more important to New Zealand, than the other way around. As a consequence, there are those who argue it is a case of “beggars cannot be choosers” and we cannot expect China to play the game any other way. They were the same voices who said we could not take France to the World Court and expect to win as we did in the 1970s; or that we could not challenge United States’ nuclear defence policy and expect no retaliations, when we did so in the 1980s with little impact on trade and a temporary political frostiness which began to thaw from the time of Prime Minister Bolger in the early 1990s.
The sad thing is that these voices of timidity represent the policy of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Their cringing pathological fear of doing anything to upset China is not only weak and cowardly – it is downright humiliating and utterly embarrassing. It is time for New Zealand to grow some backbone when it comes to its relationship with the still dictatorial, authoritarian China.